Oboe collected her mantle and hurried back to the arena. Underneath the stadium there was a winding staircase that led to the Challenger’s Paddock. She raced to open the door but was blocked by a spear.
“Hey!” Oboe said.
A fury scowled at her. Oboe used to be scared of furies. They were these angry sort of thin bird creatures, with hands on their wings, mean eyes, and long legs with claws on the end. This one had a fancy acorn crest on his armor, which meant he was a member of the spriggan. The spriggan were grandmother’s soldiers. Lots of furies liked to join the spriggan.
“Get lost, kid,” he said. “No lookey-loos. Aspirants only.”
“Let me in!” Oboe tried to slide past and got shoved back. “I gotta win the Tournament!”
He gave her a quizzical look. “How old are you?”
“Eight!” Well, almost eight. Practically eight. She felt more like nine on the inside right now, so it ought to average out.
He clicked his beak. “Yeah, no.” He grabbed her by the waist, hauled her up the stairs, and threw her back outside. “Go home! Live and bloom. Then come back and I’ll let you die proper.”
Oboe gave him the biggest frown her tiny face could manage. The door slammed and Oboe heard a lock click. That wasn’t going to stop her. She ran through the gardens, snooping for another way inside.
Rummaging through a rose bush, she found a barred window. She crept through as a bug but realized after that her mantle was too bulky to pull through the gap in the bar. There was no way she could leave it behind. Her mantle was her name. It would be a waste to win the tournament if no one knew who she was.
She climbed back out. The copper bars were tough and cold to the touch. She grabbed one and pulled, concentrating as much as she could on being strong. The metal groaned as she grunted and pulled until it bent and snapped. Oboe smiled at the busted rod in her hand, amazed by how strong she was now.
Oboe jumped. She spun to see a sopping wet wolf.
“You thought you could get away?!” He snapped his jaws at her and moved closer.
Oboe grabbed her mantle and shrank into a rat. She slipped through the grate, but the wolf caught the cloth in her teeth before she could get way.
“Get back here!” The wolf said, his mouth full.
Oboe changed back and pulled on her mantle. “Let go!!”
The mantle ripped as she yanked it free. The wolf scrambled to squeeze through the bars to get her but he was too big.
“Change me back!” He said. “Right now!”
“Leave me alone!” Oboe said. She frowned at the tear on her mantle. Mother would be angry. She slipped it on back over her head. It would have to do for now.
“Do you know what you’ve done to me?! You’ve ruined my life!”
Oboe felt a shiver of guilt. She wondered for a moment if she ought to change the human back, but shook away the thought. Giving back the Fates would make her weak again. It meant being the runt no one took seriously. Would grandmother even care about her if she was weak? Would anyone?
If the human didn’t like being enchanted then he should’ve been more careful. This was the magic she was born with and it was only fair that she should get to use it. The human wasn’t her problem.
“Sorry,” she said. “I gotta go.”
She ran down the corridor and found the Challenger’s Paddock. It was a little waiting area packed with every sort of fairy creature. There were antlers, and claws, and porcupine spines all over. Some were shaggy and big, some had bark for skin, and others had silken manes. Oboe shoved her way through, attracting stares along the way. She crawled under a unicorn to reach the door leading to the tournament ring.
“Um, excuse me?” A river nymph stepped in front of her. He had frumpy robes and a clip board. “You can’t go out there. It isn’t your round. They’re still cleaning up from the last one.”
“When is it my turn?” Oboe said.
“Let me check.” The nymph leafed through his notes. “That’s odd. I don’t see your mantle listed. Did you forget to register?”
Oboe growled. Everyone was getting in her way. “Check again.” The moment the nymph looked at his papers again, Oboe ran past him out onto the field.
Oboe’s sprint slowed to a halt as she took in the stadium. Standing inside the ring was different than watching from above. The arena seats surrounded her like walls with thousands of eyes staring down at her. The spectators rumbled with confusion at the sight of her. Oboe felt weird and scared and worried all at once. There was a spriggan on the far end of the arena dragging away a faun. The faun was bleeding.
“There’s a child on the field!” Someone shouted. “Someone grab her!”
A pair of leshy rushed towards Oboe like burly trees. They stopped dead in their tracks when the heard a scream.
Something was happening in the stadium seats. Fairies were yelling and climbing over one another to get away. A wolf burst through the crowd and charged down the arena steps. It leapt into the ring.
“I’ll kill you!” He shouted, barreling towards Oboe.
Oboe panicked. Everything was going wrong. She tried to run and almost tripped.
There was a bang and a flash of light. The roar of the crowd was cut silent. The wolf froze in his tracks. Every creature in the stadium stood still and every breath was held. Oboe felt the air hang heavy. Her ears were ringing. She turned, and saw grandmother rising from her box seat, her hand held up.